Although the lute figures prominently in the pictorial art of the fifteenth century, it was not a popular instrument in the true sense of the word; it can hardly be seen as an instrument 'of the people'. In fact it was most cultivated by that section of society that commissioned the paintings in which it so often features: the aristocracy and the upper echelons of the merchant class on whose success in business the political power of a city-state like Venice really depended. Early in the century the instrument was principally the domain of the professional musician; lutenists usually worked in pairs, one showing off his consummate skill in improvising exuberant variations over a slower-moving 'tenor' played by his humbler partner. It seems likely that the junior partner sometimes played a reduction of the lower parts of a well-known vocal ensemble piece, be it an amorous chanson or even a sacred motet, on his lute, While this complex texture could be approximated by the skilful use of the customary plectrum, it was actually easier to do using the individual fingertips of the right hand rather than with the 'strumming' technique of the plectrum. It cannot have taken long to see the expressive potential of playing with the fingertips, which allowed a greater range of dynamic and tonal nuance. This new technique also opened up the possibility of playing truly polyphonic music devised for the lute, and by the time the first lute music was published in 1507, it had become the dominant style, although the old plectrum technique must have remained in professional use for some time after that when the occasion arose.
The music beautifully printed by Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice from around 1500 was not intended for professional musicians. It supplied a demand for high-quality music for consumption by amateur musicians with the money to spare They were emulating their richer contemporaries, the aristocrats and merchants, who were, of course, the principal employers of professional players, and most music manuscripts of the period, sometimes extravagantly calligraphed and decorated, come from that exalted circle Since professional lutenists worked within an essentially improvisational, aural tradition (as they continued to do throughout the lute's history) they had little need of music that was written any differently from that used by singers or players of any other instrument. From the late fifteenth century, however, there began to appear manuscripts and, from 1507, a series of printed books, of idiomatic music specifically composed or arranged for the lute. All these manuscripts and prints used tablature, a form of notation that made it easy for an amateur lutenist to find the sometimes complicated fingering positions for the sophisticated music, itself probably based on the repertory of the professional players whose playing was so highly respected.
While the early lute manuscripts and prints hand down to us a repertory of elaborated versions of vocal courtly chansons and religious motets as well as idiomatic lute compositions, especially the quasi- improvised ricercars that were often used as preludes to the vocal-derived pieces, they also preserve a considerable quantity of dance music. What is especially interesting about the dances is that they show that the music of the street was routinely heard in the elegant chambers of the wealthy, alongside the sophistication and delicacy of courtly music that seems, on the face of it, more suited to the gentle tones of the lute. But it is easy for us to forget how important dancing was as a part of everyday social intercourse in the Renaissance. It was literally as normal as eating or drinking, and as important as a social skill as the more practical necessities of life such as elementary horsemanship or self-defence in the form of basic swordsmanship. Like dance music of all periods, that of the Renaissance tended to move upwards in the social scale; folk-dances entered the ball-room, so to speak, although they probably lost some of their rough edges in the process.
It is not hard to detect the earthy origins of much dance music for lute, especially in those called calata or piva by Joan Ambrosio Dalza from Milan, whose collection Petrucci published in 1508. Sadly, as with all the lutenists represented in this recording (with one exception) we know next to nothing about his life, or even the reputation he enjoyed. However, given the consistently high quality of his music, we can surely assume that he was a professional player of high standing; Petrucci's edition simply calls him an 'excellent musician and lute player'. As with many dance collections of the sixteenth century, Dalza names his dances according to their regional origin. There are, for example, two kinds of pavana, one from Venice (the pavana venetiana) and one from Ferrara (pavana ferrarese). Each of these has a distinctive tune and harmonic framework, a principle which can be seen at work in most Renaissance dance music, and one which gave clear audible cues to the dancers. Frustratingly, we have no record of the steps of these dances; they must have been so familiar at the time that no one bothered to write them down. Dalza's dances were mostly grouped into miniature three-movement 'suites', gradually increasing in pace: pavana, saltarello and piva, the latter sometimes replaced by a spingardo. Near the end of his collection is a number of calatas, some labelled ala spagnola, though what made them specifically Spanish is anybody's guess at this distance in time. The volume also includes several recercars, free-style idiomatic compositions which explored the mode, or 'mood', of the music to follow. These are often associated with an introduction, ostensibly provided to check the tuning of the lute, the tastar de corde. This functional aspect of these pieces is less important to a listener today than their remarkable expressive effect.
Petrucci' s first offering of lute music was published in two volumes in 1507. Most of the eighty or so pieces are attributed to Francesco Spinacino, about whom we know even less than we do about Dalza. Most of it was originally conceived for voices, such as the chansons lay pris amours (possibly by Ghiselin) and le ne fay (possibly by Busnois), but a few pieces, like Josquin's popular La Bernardina and some bassadanza settings, were originally instrumental. Spinacino preserved the old tradition in his lute-duet settings, where one player shows off his skill at playing fast notes, while the other provides a foundation derived from the lower voices of the polyphonic original. In some cases Spinacino has provided a recercar specific to a particular piece, a habit which Franciscus Bossinensis ('Francis from Bosnia') follows in his collections of part-songs set for solo voice and lute, published by Petrucci in 1509 and 1511; Bossinensis clearly indicates which recercars from the set he provides might be suitable to introduce each song.
With Vincenzo Capirola, we come at last to a composer-lutenist whose biography is not a complete blank. Boru in Brescia in 1474, he was probably the excellent Brescian lutenist who caused a stir on a visit to Henry VIII's court in England in 1515. His music is preserved in a single, sumptuously-decorated manuscript written in Venice around 1517 and now kept in the Newberry Library, Chicago. This volume, of obvious artistic value, produced by a devoted pupil named Vitale, who, with admirable prescience, decorated it to ensure it would not be destroyed after the music had gone out of fashion, also includes some valuable instructions on lute-playing by Capirola. His recercars range from easy pieces for a beginner to very difficult and ingenious compositions, somewhat outstripping Spinacino's in musical interest. He occasionally, like Spinacino and Bossinensis, explicitly pairs certain recercars with vocal arrangements. Among the latter are a number of highly serious works, sections of mass-settings and other liturgical works. These rub shoulders with lighter frottole and dance- songs like the ones recorded here.
A similar repertory of music is found iu a slightly earlier Venetian manuscript, this time by an anonymous lutenist, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. This manuscript contains many song-accompaniments, sometimes in addition to a version of the same song arranged for solo lute. The arrangements are somewhat more elaborate than those by Bossinensis, and may be closer to professional practice, although it seems unlikely that the volume was actually used by a professional player; more likely, it was copied by or for a pupil under a master's supervision, as was often the case with lute manuscripts at all periods. Some of the music in the manuscript definitely stems from somewhat earlier, like the recercar recorded here following Serafino dall' Aquila's Non mi negar signora, which is also found in yet another Venetian manuscript (now in a library in Pesaro) from the last decades of the fifteenth century.
Of course, this written and printed music is merely the tip of an iceberg of music we shall never hear. Great lutenists, from 1400 to 1800, were famed for their powers of improvisation. The best that we can hope for from the surviving tablatures is a kind of crude approximation of their art, a little like a Titian portrait recreated by the technique of 'painting by numbers'. The fact that the music we do have is of such high quality and so plangently expressive makes its survival, almost by chance, all the more something for which we should be profoundly grateful.
Christopher Wilson studied the lute at the Royal College of Music in London with Diana Poulton. He has since established himself as one of the leading lutenists in Great Britain, specialising in the performance of renaissance music. He has taken part in many radio and television broadcasts, both as soloist and as an ensemble performer, and concert tours have taken him to most countries in Europe, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Russia, Hong Kong, Japan and the United States. As well as working with Shirley Rumsey in a duo, the two players co-direct their own ensemble, Kithara. Christopher Wilson has performed with many of the leading early music groups and his increasing interest in the lute song repertoire has led him to work with various song recitalists.
Shirley Rumsey studied the lute and singing at the Royal College of Music in London, where, becoming interested in the enormous repertoire for lute and voice, she began to combine the two. Besides giving solo recitals and concerts with Christopher Wilson, she co-directs with him the ensemble Kithara. Shirley Rumsey has performed extensively throughout Europe and Scandinavia and has taken part in numerous festivals, appeared a number of times on television, made frequent recordings for BBC Radio 3 and broadcast on many European networks. She has recorded CDs of Spanish and Italian renaissance music for Naxos.
ReviewsThe lute was always an aristocratic instrument, and Christopher Wilson's playing--nimble yet restrained in expression--does full justice to this quality...Wilson catches the character of each piece with great sensitivity. - Jeremy Noble, International Record Review, April 2000